The Principal Catholic Practices, Chapter 9 – The Sacramentals

The Principal Catholic Practices, by Father George Thomas SchmidtTheir Nature. Some Forms.

It is a mark of profound ignorance when non-Catholics accuse us of superstitious practices because we carry the Rosary in our pocket, or because we cherish our scapular or medal. True, if we attributed any healing power or charm to the substance of the medal or the cloth of the scapular, we would, indeed, be guilty of superstition. But Catholics do not use holy water or burn candles because they believe that these articles, in themselves, have any protecting power. Their confidence and trust arises from the fact that these sacramentals are blessed in the name of the Church of God, who received from the Almighty the power of blessing.

What, then, are sacramentals? The name seems to indicate that they are somewhat similar to the sacraments. However, there is a vast difference between the two. The sacraments are instituted by Our Lord Himself. They either give or increase sanctifying grace. Now the sacramentals are purely of ecclesiastical origin, and their purpose is to render us more worthy of the sacraments. Also they may be intended as safeguards for body and soul against sickness and sin.

The blessing given by a priest is a sacramental, likewise the consecration of a Pope, of an emperor or king, or the consecration of nuns in holy religion. Churches are also consecrated and blessed. In these instances, the words of blessing are to be taken as the sacramental. But the name also applies to articles that are blessed; e.g., holy water, rosaries, medals, candles, etc.

In the blessing of holy water, the priest begs God to purify and sanctify the water in order that the faithful may by the use of it be defended from the evil spirits, and safeguarded in health; and that the homes in which it shall be used will be free from impurities and defended from all harm.

In the blessing of women after childbirth, the priest, after reciting a psalm of thanksgiving, places his stole in the hand of the woman with the words: “Enter thou into the temple of God, adore the Son of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Who gives thee fruitfulness of offspring.” This induction into the church is followed by several versicles imploring God to protect the woman, and in conclusion the priest recites the following prayer: “Almighty, everlasting God, who, through the delivery of the Blessed Virgin Mary, hast turned the pains of the faithful at childbirth into joy: look mercifully on this Thy handmaid, who comes in gladness to Thy holy temple to offer up her thanks: and grant that after this life, through the merits and intercession of the same Blessed Mary, she may prove worthy to obtain, together with her child, the joys of everlasting happiness. Through the same Christ Our Lord. Amen.”

In blessing the scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the following oration is used: “Lord Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, sanctify with Thy right hand this garment which, out of love for Thee and for Thy Mother, the Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel, Thy servant will devoutly wear, so that by the intercession of the same Mother, he may be defended from the malignant spirit and may persevere in Thy grace until death: Who lives and reigns for ages and ages. Amen.”

Have you observed that in the blessing of the sacramentals there is no mention made of any inherent power in the materials used, but that all benediction is petitioned from God through the merits or intercession of the saints? In granting us the use of the sacramentals, the Church does nothing more than share with us the riches that have been stored up in her treasury by Christ and the saints.

Now, then, where is there even a semblance of superstition in the use of the sacramentals? Superstition, correctly defined, consists in ascribing to creatures and circumstances powers which they do not possess by nature or by the blessing of the Church. Every sane person knows that ordinary water does not possess the power of warding off the evil spirits or of preventing or curing disease. But in becoming holy water it is enriched with the blessing of the Church of God. This blessing is the reason for the Catholic’s belief in holy water.

Is it wrong for the Church to do what Christ Himself sanctioned? We see Him blessing the loaves and fishes before performing the great miracle of the multiplication of loaves. He blessed the apostles and laid His hands upon little children in benediction.

However, the sacramentals may be abused. They are not a cure-all, nor do they assume the character of a charm that is supposed to bring good luck. They have their full value from the prayer of the Church. True, the prayers of the Church are always heard, but it does not follow that we will obtain whatever we desire through the prayers of God’s Church. The devout use of the sacramentals will redound to our benefit in whatever manner pleases God.

Now some of the sacramentals used in our religious services may seem meaningless and useless. Some years ago the question was put to me: “Why does the Church persist in using burning candles in broad daylight? There is no sense to it.” Oh, but there is a world of sense and significance to the blessed candle. Christ is the Light of the World, and the burning candle symbolizes Christ. The paschal candle, which is blessed by the priest on Holy Saturday, is especially designated as the Light that illuminated the darkness in the world.

Even if we would assume that the candles on the altar serve no higher purpose than to shed light, we would be forced to admit that the purest material had been selected; namely. the wax manufactured in the workshop of the honey-bee.

The burning candles in our churches or in our homes, sending their flames heavenward, also are symbolical of the prayers that ascend to God from our hearts. And thus the placing of a blessed candle on the altar actually becomes a prayer.

We hold the blessed candle at the most important times in our lives. At Baptism the sponsor holds it for us, and when the priest gives it to him his words are: “Receive this burning light and keep thy Baptism so as to be without blame: observe the commandments of God, that when Our Lord shall come to His nuptials, thou may meet Him together with all the saints of the heavenly court, and may have eternal life and live forever and ever. Amen.” Note the allusion to the virgins who with burning lamps went to meet the bride-groom.

Again the Church places the blessed candle in our hands when we are about to depart from this life. Many a one, when he found himself slowly being enveloped by the shadows of death, has called for more light. Was it the gradual loss of the sight of the eyes, or was it the darkness of death without Christ? The burning candle in the hand of the dying Catholic tells him that Christ, the Light of the World, will illuminate his path on the last journey and will lead him from the darkness of death to the dawn of eternal life.

Some have also taken offense at the practice of the Church in blessing the bodies of the dead. Surely those bodies that in Ufe were temples of the Holy Ghost and the tabernacles wherein Our Saviour had so often abided, are worthy of being blessed when about to be consigned to the grave. But perhaps the practice of incensing the bodies of the dead gives rise to some misunderstanding. Incense is not only used in adoration, but also takes its place with holy water as a means of conferring the blessing of the Church upon any creature. Thus incense is used in the blessing of palms and candles, in the consecration of a church, in the blessing of bells, and in many other blessings and consecrations.

It will now be apparent that if one uses the sacramentals according to the intention and direction of the Church, he cannot incur the slightest guilt of superstition. Nay more, the sacramentals are gifts of rare value, and not only help and sustain body and soul, but also are symbolical of beautiful thoughts and inspiring sentiments. The evil spirit knows the value of the prayer of the Church, and he fears her means of grace. It is to his advantage to discourage the use of the sacramentals, and, who knows, it may be for that reason that non-Catholics are so quick to accuse the Church and the faithful of superstition.